Last week I spoke at the annual meeting of a California-based dairy nutrition company. The meeting was at the plush Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach; the temp there was 85F and I was wishing they’d had the meeting there in February when we were freezing even in our winter quarters in Virginia! When I came into Extension work in the mid-1960s we had about 30,000 dairy cows on 1000 dairy farms in Northeastern NY. There were half a dozen feed companies with a total of about 10 nutritional consultants serving these farms-all employed by one of the feed companies. so, a couple hundred potential clients for each consultant. It’s no wonder that some farms didn’t see their feed company consultant for months on end. At the Miami Beach meeting each nutritionist reported having clients with a total of at least 50,000 cows, but with the typical number of cows per farm in the western U.S. it’s likely that the nutritionist could visit each of his/her dairies at least a couple times per month. And he nutritionist is employed by the farmer, not by a feed company. But the biggest difference is what computers have done to feed programming and ration balancing. Even if the nutritionist can’t be on the dairy in person there’s information at hand via computer to permit timely adjustments in rations or other herd management chores. Back in the 1960s one of the jobs of Extension educators was to work with farmers on feed programs since there was a big difference in ability between the various company-employed representatives. That’s not the case anymore; computerized feed programs have greatly leveled the playing field, and Extension folks can do things a lot more productive that chasing around after dairy ration challenges. Times have certainly changed, and for the better!
This is the second cold, miserable winter both in Northern NY (where we spend most of the year) and in central Virginia, where we supposedly go to spend the winter away from snow and ice. How well is that working? Not very! Last week it was below zero, the first sub-zero reading in this area in 15 years. And I got up this morning to 6″ of fresh snow–actually 5″ of snow over 1″ of slush since road surfaces were warm enough to melt the first of the snow. This was quite a shock since at 11 PM there was nary a flake and the forecast was for an inch or so–maybe. We’ve had more snow in central Virginia than they’ve had in Northern NY—-weird. What was now a cold snap is now the Polar Vortex, and some climatologists say that we’ll see more of this due to the melting of Arctic ice. It seems strange that warmer temps at the North Pole results in colder winters in the Northeast. Meanwhile, Alaskans are basking in what for them is blissfully warm temps–even in Fairbanks.
It will be interesting to see what impact this weather has on perennial forages. Last year we saw serious winter injury on some forage grasses including orchardgrass and tall fescue. Not consistent–spotty, fortunately. But last year the cold was accompanied by serious icing in some areas, and I think ice may be worse for grasses than the cold. We’ll see, since much of the Northeast has been blanketed with snow almost continuously for the past two months. If we do see injury this spring we may have to start re-evaluating forage choices and management. The temptation will be to avoid knee-jerk reactions while not ignoring the facts on the ground.
It’s been said that an economist is a person who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today. I feel somewhat the same way in trying to predict fertilizer prices for the coming year. For several falls now I’ve tried to give the farmers who read and actually may act on what I say an idea of what will happen to fertilizer prices in the coming months. I didn’t do so in fall 2014 because the international situation was so up in the air that anything I might say would be a wild guess, not a prediction. On the one hand U.S. grain prices were very low and it appeared that Corn Belt farmers weren’t going to spend a lot of $ on fertilizer, unless prices for the 2015 crop were likely to improve considerably. Then in November there were floods at two Russian potash mine that are responsible for over 3% of global potash production. (Russia, Canada and Belarus are the world’s three largest potash producers.) All production from these two mines may be lost. Add to this that China still was playing its cards close to its vest, and that nation is a huge importer of potash. Put all these factors in a pot, stir, and what get is certainly NOT a clear indication of near-term prices.
Prices for phosphates and nitrogen products are a bit more predictable, if only compared to those of potash. It appears that the best prices for UAN were last fall, and farmers who didn’t order 2015 needs before the holidays will pay higher prices. As with potash, China will have a sizable influence on urea prices, but as an exporter, not an importer. If China starts selling aggressively (as it has in the past) then urea prices could be OK. Otherwise, world demand for urea is already picking up as farmers start planning for 2015 spring planting, and there won’t be many bargains out there.
This news isn’t as bad for dairy farmers as it is for cash crop operators since dairy farms have a constant source of highly plant-available nutrients provided each and every day by their livestock.
Someone said that there’s no cure for high prices like high prices; one of our former Secretaries of Agriculture noted that if egg prices get high enough even the roosters start laying them. We’re about to find this out once again regarding milk prices. Not to mix a metaphor, dairy farmers have been living in hog heaven of late what with plummeting grain prices and soaring milk prices. The combination of $25 milk, $10 soybeans and $4.00 corn—sweet! For a while at least. The U.S. All-Milk price will drop below $20 in the next month or two and it might be quite a while before we see $20+ prices again, most likely not for at least a year. Grain prices should stay low for awhile so it’s not anything like the horrible condition not many years ago when the price of farm milk was about half what it’s been in recent months and grain prices higher than they currently are. The VIX Index is a Wall Street term that measures the expected volatility of any of several U.S. stock exchanges. A high VIX is generally considered worrisome since stock market investors–a notably worrisome lot during the best of times–absolutely hate uncertainty. If there were a VIX for milk prices the warning bells would be ringing!
There’s nothing the individual dairy farmer can do about price volatility, but plenty that can be done to limit its impact on his/her farm. For the past year or so I’ve been encouraging farmers to take advantage of the good times (and if $25 milk doesn’t qualify as that, what does?) to make the type of capital investments–equipment and/or land improvement–that will continue to be profitable when prices undergo the slump we all new was going to occur. The best managers will continue to make a profit, even with milk at $18.00, but they won’t make nearly as much. As for those who have been barely keep their financial heads above water, I’m afraid there will be some very tough months ahead.
I’m not sure if it’s global warming, climate change or something else, but recent predictions suggest that farmers on the Left Coast may be in the early stages of either a 10-year (highly likely) or 30-year (50-50 chance they say) mega-drought. Southern California and areas east of there will be most affected; this means mostly metro areas in California but some key dairy farming areas in New Mexico and Arizona. But even where the drought isn’t the worst, it appears that the severity and duration of the drought will result in long-term, maybe even permanent changes in agriculture. Less corn, a lot less alfalfa, and more nut orchards since nuts need a fraction of the water as do forage crops.
The SW drought may result in the exodus of dairies in the affected regions–some to move to other areas including the Dakotas, but perhaps we’ll simply wind up with fewer dairy cows. Short-term this wouldn’t be a problem since there’s plenty of supply to meet demand. Long-term it’s tough to tell because of the push-pull of two trends: U.S. population will continue to increase which normally would be positive for demand. but much of the population growth will be in the Hispanic population, and a significant portion of Hispanics are lactose-intolerant. This would suggest that per capita consumption of dairy products–not one of the brighter spots in dairy statistics–may continue to be a problem area.
This is in part a follow-up to a post of a couple of months ago when I was noting the paucity of standability and other information on corn hybrids available from university trials. Over the past year or so I’ve been conducting an email correspondence with a semi-retired plant breeder who used to work for on of the major seed companies. He’s not at all convinced at how important this data is, suggesting that much of it is available from seed companies. He’s particularly down on university alfalfa trials, and wonders if they’re even worth doing. And at least with alfalfa he may have a point since there’s been so little progress in alfalfa yield over the decades, and almost no universities test the varieties for forage quality so even if there are differences we don’t know it. I have absolutely NO idea of the forage quality of the alfalfa varieties grown now vs. 10-20 years ago, but expect that any differences are minimal. And my plant breeder buddy notes with good reason that stating the level of disease resistance of each variety or cultivar is essentially worthless since all modern varieties are rated as “High” or “Very High” in resistance to multiple diseases. I doubt that farmers pay any attention to these ratings when selecting varieties.
Corn hybrid selection is a lot more involved that alfalfa variety selection because of the differences in maturity as well as real differences in disease resistance, particularly to Northern Corn Leaf Blight. Then there’s the matter of leafy vs. BMR vs. conventional hybrids, kernel texture, digestibility, etc. My friend claims that much of this information can be secured from the seed companies, and this is where we differ since the seed companies do a fine job of evaluation their own hybrids but not competitive hybrids…not surprisingly! With the notable exception of BMR he’s right when it comes to NDF digestibility since there’s not much difference among hybrids when they’re grown under similar soil and climatic conditions. Where we differ is yield: He thinks that the seed companies are self-monitoring since they wouldn’t release any hybrid that wasn’t competitive for yield. My comment to him is that I’ve seen some real “corn dogs” both in the field and in university trials–hybrids yielding not much more than 50% of the top yielding hybrids in the trial. Fortunately these are the exceptions, but there’s a lot bigger difference in yield than in forage quality, which is why I think that university trials–at least for corn hybrids–are still useful.
I’ve often said that bad weather can make even the best farmer look bad, while good weather can make a poor farmer look–well, a lousy farmer looks bad in spite of the weather.
But I digress. I don’t know if we can attribute it to climate change, the first hints of an El Nino, or just luck of the draw, but weather sure is wreaking havoc in several farming areas. I just got an email from a dairy nutritionist in Nebraska inquiring about the availability of very early corn hybrids because tornadoes and heavy rains are causing farmers to replant corn (for silage). And a friend in Minnesota, a plant breeder, reports that heavy rains there are flooding spring-planted crops. It’s not that bad in the Northeast, but that depends on the location, especially when a thunderstorm drops several inches on one farm while not touching farms in the next community. I remember one day sitting in my office during hay crop harvest when all of a sudden it started raining in torrents. We had several employees involved in chopping and hauling the crop, so I went hauling up there in my car expecting the worst. But when I got there, only a few miles north of the farm, it was bone dry, the sun was shining, and the guys were wondering if I’d just washed my car since it was still wet!
There’s nothing that can be done to change the weather, but good crop managers seem to make the best of a bad situation. They have the ability to get things done not only right, but quickly. The move from baling forages as dry hay to chopping them for silage made a huge difference, reducing weather risk from several days to about half a day. Especially with second and subsequent harvests, mowing early in the morning often can mean chopping that afternoon. Yet I continue to see field after field of brown windrows, wet yet again from the latest shower, the farmer waiting for enough dry weather to be ready to bale. Many of these same farms already put up corn silage, so the move from dry hay to hay silage means a different head for the chopper plus more silage capacity. Not simple or cheap–but neither is trying to make dry hay in the humid Northeast!
It always amazes me, but probably shouldn’t, that so many farmers only listen to the advice that pleases them. The latest example involves the miserable early spring planting conditions that left most of the corn still unplanted when grasses reached the boot stage. Extension educators and university specialists recommended, with considerable publicity, that when it’s time to mow forages park the corn planter. Did farmers listen? If they did it was with a “tin ear” since most sure didn’t follow the recommendation. In farmers’ minds, while alfalfa may be the queen of forage crops, corn is king with no pretenders to the crown. It was particularly important to follow the advice, for two reasons: First, grasses decline in quality somewhat more quickly than does alfalfa, and a fully-headed crop of cool-season forage grass is no longer decent forage for high-producing dairy cows. Not for no reason do we say “When you see the head the quality is dead.” Second, grasses are ready for harvest sooner than is alfalfa, so there was still more time remaining to get corn planted with the expectation of good yield.
First cut almost always is the highest-yielding one; in the case of forage grasses often at least half the total season’s yield. And late-harvested grasses don’t recover nearly as fast, so not only is the first cut of lower quality but second cut is also impacted. And while late-harvested first cut often produces impressive yields, I often ask farmers what’s worse than having lousy forage? Having a lot of it.
I guess this could be considered a rant. I’ve been complaining for several years that farmers don’t have any data on the standability of corn hybrids harvested for silage. I check all the state university trials in the northern U.S. and down as far as Virginia, and there’s not a single trial that reports standability. Perhaps today’s corn hybrids stand so well that this information isn’t needed—but if nobody is collecting this data how do we know? Seed companies selling against BMR corn hybrids sometimes say very nasty things about BMR standability, but where’s the data?
Now we learn that because of staffing and economics “issues”, beginning this year Cornell University will no longer plant corn hybrid trials. This is bad news indeed for farmers in N.Y. and New England, since it leaves them with almost no data on early-maturity hybrids–under 90 RM. I checked other state university hybrid trials, and here’s the situation:
Wisconsin: Has a 90 RM and earlier trial, but there are very few seed companies marketing in the Northeast included, and none of the regional seed companies selling in the Northeast.
Minnesota: Has a 92 RM and earlier trial, but only a few 85 RM hybrids and none from companies selling in the Northeast.
Michigan: Nothing less than 96 RM.
Pennsylvania: Has a 85-92 RM trial but only two hybrids that are 85 RM, mostly 90+ RM.
With the increasing use of triticale and other spring-harvested cereals there’s a real need for data on the performance of sub-90 RM corn hybrids. We know from previous trial data that there are big differences among early-season hybrids in yield and milk production per acre. The Cornell trials were about the only reliable, unbiased source of 80-90 RM hybrid performance. Now what will farmers and those advising farmers do? I sure don’t know.
I’m typing this from the Michigan State University campus, and just finished a walk since I spent much of the day in the car. I was wearing my UConn Husky cap in hopes of encountering a Spartan basketball fan–hopefully a good-natured one since my Huskies recently knocked Michigan State out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But no such luck. Our hotel is on the edge of the university golf course, and there were some crazy golfers out there even though there were still traces of snow here and there. Maybe not so crazy since I remember playing one spring in the Poconos where we established a temporary local rule: Free lifts from snow drifts.
Cold weather has been in the news of late, as various predictions are that the Great Lakes are frozen so extensively–surface area as well as ice depth–that this will have a decided impact on early season cropping, perhaps persisting into June (!). One crops consultant is recommending that farmers seriously consider swapping full season corn hybrids for earlier-maturing ones. Others aren’t as spooked, say that it’s too early to be making any changes in cropping plans. If there’s any impact it’s more likely to be closest to the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water. Adding to the confusion is that weather prognosticators say that there’s an even chance of warmer vs. cooler spring weather. (This way they can’t be wrong.)
Also of concern is what to do about winter cereals such as triticale that were planted with the intention of harvest just prior to planting corn. Even with “normal” weather this often results in planting corn later than ideal, but what will happen if corn planting time arrives and the winter cereals have just started to put on yield but are a couple of weeks from the recommended flag leaf harvest stage? How long should farmers wait before they decide to forgo a triticale crop and start to plant corn? What impact will a foot of triticale growth have on corn planting, since we know that triticale produces toxins that are at least somewhat allelopathic to corn? (Allelopathy is the ability of one plant species to produce chemicals harmful to another plant species.) I’m told that there was about 30,000 acres of triticale planted in NY State last fall, most of it with the intention of harvest in the coming month, more or less. I think we’ll wind up much wiser but perhaps also somewhat sadder by the time we’re on the other side of spring planting and spring forage harvest this year.